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ministry prep: gardeners and artists

22 August, 2009

This is the first part in a pre fall-semester series on ministry prep for BSM at uCalgary.


Much of the university ministry reading I’ve been doing keeps coming back to doing more than simply having a hip fun gathering and perfecting devotional practices. While I can’t overemphasize the importance of having a crew you can run with, and of the classical spiritual disciplines (prayer, scripture, meditation, etc.), I agree with the gist of what they’re saying: this stuff needs to be lived out in a way that matters to the campus, students, faculty, and staff to whom we have been sent. In order to do that, we’ve got to have some groundwork in place: an understanding of what the university ought to exist to do, a sense of what is good and what is not good at our particular school, and a clear picture of what it is we’re working to create and be for the university.

This TED talk by Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College, does a really good job of this. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t really like what she’s after. Founding a secular church on the university campus is of no interest to me (I’m not even trying to found a real church!). I’m not crazy about her politics. What I do like, however, is how she does what she does.

The questions she’s asking and answering are questions we, as a campus ministry, must ask and answer as well. We are, as John Stackhouse so clearly explains in his magnum opus on campus ministry, to tend to God’s creation (which includes both nature and culture). Or, as Andy Crouch put it (more poetically, I might add), we are to be artists and gardeners. Our primary call is that of gardener, preserving, nurturing, tending, and caring for that which is good. And to be sure, there is much about the university that is good, that fits squarely within God’s dreams of shalom/peace/wholeness for the world, and that we, as followers of Jesus, ought to come alongside the university to work towards. At the same time, to rephrase Hebrews, Though we have now no continuing university, we look for one that is to come. We have an obligation to be artists as well, creating and being something at the university that will exist as a sign of the Kingdom, to the advantage of us all.

Let’s look at how Liz does what she does. First, she clearly identifies the purpose of the university: changing the world by engendering public good. She’s got a sense that there’s a problem, stating, When the impulse is to change the world, the academy is more likely to engender a learned helplessness than to create a sense of empowerment. She sees a drift away from the classical understanding of liberal arts (creating generalists), and calls its replacement (idealization of the expert, fragmentation of knowledge, technical mastery, and neutrality) toxic when it comes to engendering public good.

U of C

At the same time, she clearly sees much that is still of value in academia, and seeks to protect and nurture it. As edgy as she sounds at TED, she’s not really breaking the mold here. She wants to erect a building on campus, and found an institute that will work within the strictures of scholarship to effect change. Though her goals may be different, her method is little changed from the standard practice of the academy. She still sees places for specialists, researchers, and professors to do what they have always done.

Finally, she has a clear picture of what it is that she wants to create. An interdisciplinary secular church that will keep scholarly pursuits focused on public good by emphasizing rhetoric, design, mediation and improvisation, quantitative reasoning, and technology. Contrary to widely held assumptions, an emphasis on action provides a special urgency to thinking, she states.

What I’m not saying is that we have to have a plan and agenda for changing the whole campus, discipling everyone, etc. What I am saying is that if we have answers to some of these questions, it will help us know how to follow Jesus as a part of the UofC, and it will help us move others to do the same.

Our job then, is to answer these same questions as followers of Jesus. Specifically:

  • What is the purpose of the university in general (C. S. Lewis said it was to teach wisdom), and the University of Calgary specifically?
  • What about the U of C is good? What can we help to tend and nurture?
  • What is not good? What do we need to resist or ignore?
  • What is it that we want to create and be? This is different than asking what we want the university to be. That’s not really ours to dictate or change. What we’re asking is what we want to create. As Crouch points out, we don’t so much make culture as we make things: things like omelets, interstate highways, languages, networks, and customs that in turn shape and define the horizons of the possible. What are we working to create?

The point here isn’t so much definitive answers as brain storming. We don’t have to decide what the best stuff about the U is yet, so just list off what’s good. We don’t have to decide what we’re going to do yet, so just list whatever you’d like to create, etc.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Cow permalink
    22 August, 2009 6:42 pm

    Things that are good about the U: Easy access, people are nice in general – although conservative.
    What I’d like to create: A group of people who better understands God and who wants to follow Him because of that.

  2. Crystal permalink
    23 August, 2009 7:22 pm

    the thing I keep coming back to is we have to create a space where there is a balance between growing our core group in their faith journey, as well as our relationships with one another, and with reaching out and tending, growing, etc. those who join us. If we neglect the care of our own, others will not want to be part of what we’re doing — or the Jesus we talk about!

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